What are typical ritualistic behaviors?
Children often like routines—they are safe, predictable, and comforting all at the same time. In School, teachers often establish routines throughout the day, which may include a routine for activities and a routine for clean up. Older students attend their classes following a routine or schedule. When a young student needs to deviate from one of their routines, there may be some stress or resistance involved. Older students are often more than happy to break a routine, such as when they want to attend a special assembly instead of class or miss a day of school entirely to go on a field trip.
While routines involve actions that need to be done, like brushing the teeth and making the bed, rituals are usually internally motivated, have a sense of purpose, and are perceived as having a positive effect. In many children and adolescents rituals are connected with fears and anxieties and help them accept and counterbalance stressful situations. Younger children’s ritualistic behaviors are related to fears, such as stranger and separation anxieties, whereas the ritualistic behaviors of older ones are related to more specific fears such as contamination and the risk of inflicting harm to self or others.
Some repetitive behaviors, routines, and rituals are expected. Young students may reenact their experiences during play, and adolescents may have a specific way of warming up before exercising. Some athletes are superstitious and engage in rituals before competing. All of these behaviors are typical, as long as they remain related to the specific activity at hand and do not intrude or interfere with other aspects of the individual’s life or the lives of others around them.
When should I be concerned about a student’s ritualistic behaviors or repetitive movements?
If a student is engaging in ritualistic behaviors or repetitive movements compulsively or obsessively and there are difficulties in interrupting them, or if the behaviors are impacting other aspects of the student’s life or the lives of others around them, this may be cause for concern.
Some concerning repetitive behaviors include:
- Clearing their throat.
- Body twitches.
- Shoulder shrugging.
- Facial grimacing.
- Making sounds.
Some concerning rituals include:
- Repeated or extensive washing or cleaning.
- Repeated checking behaviors (e.g., checking for mistakes over and over again).
- Repeated specific actions (e.g., going in and out of a doorway).
- Repeated object counting, or silently repeating words.
- Arranging or lining up objects.
- Strong refusal to throw things away.
- Unwillingness to “step on cracks”.
- Repeatedly insisting another person do or say something.
- Repeated praying.
What can I do to help a student with ritualistic behaviors or repetitive movements?
If a student is experiencing difficulties due to more intrusive repetitive or ritual-like behaviors, there are several things teachers may attempt doing.
- Talk about it. A teacher may ask simple questions to better understand what the student is experiencing. Listening to the reasons the student does what they do helps teachers to understand what kind of difficulty is behind repetitive behaviors.
- Be supportive. It is important for a teacher to be supportive and let the student know that their behavior has been noticed and that there can be help.
- Bring the concerns to a caregiver’s attention. A student’s caregivers need to know of anything concerning occurring in school. Caregivers may also be able to identify if concerning behaviors are occurring outside of school.
- Seek help from a school mental health professional. If the student is distressed or feels that they are unable to stop doing these things, help from a mental health professional might be needed.
- Seek support. With a caregiver’s permission, teachers may consult other professionals who specialize in helping children with emotional difficulties.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Ritualistic behaviors and repetitive movements that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interfere with classroom daily activities, may indicate the possibility of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Tics.
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Tics can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
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